Archive | September 2014

How Does Van Gaal Solve United’s Defensive Crisis?

Manchester United’s resounding 4-0 win over QPR 2 weeks ago was ironically the worst thing that could have happened. As the team of ‘Gaalacticos’ majestically fitted together, United’s new stars put together a world class performance giving off the idea and belief that normal service was resumed and United were back. How wrong we all were.

Even 3-1 up away at Leicester after 60 minutes everything appeared to be going to plan. But for all the strengths and embarrassment of riches Louis van Gaal has in attack, the 4 goals Leicester scored past David de Gea in just 20 minutes on Sunday highlighted the desperate situation United find themselves in defensively.

It’s too late for new signings now. It’s too late to recall Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand. United need to make sure it’s not too late to put together a good season.

The more bad results, defensive errors and frailties at the back there are, the longer people will scream the word ‘crisis’. United need to get their season back on track and quickly. But what can van Gaal do at the back? Jonny Evans has now joined Phil Jones on the sidelines, but even when both were fit there were problems. Tyler Blackett is suspended after his sending off against Leicester, and United have loaned out their next centre back option, youngster Michael Keane, to Burnley.

Marcos Rojo is expected to move into the central defence on Saturday when West Ham face United at Old Trafford, and is a move which makes sense after the Argentine World Cup finalist played the majority of his games for Sporting Lisbon in the centre back position. Rojo has started at left back in the games against QPR and Leicester City, but with Luke Shaw and Daley Blind available to play in the position, it makes sense for him to move to centre back.

Will Rojo pick up an immediate understanding at the back with Chris Smalling though? The England defender is still yet to win around the whole Old Trafford faithful, and their partnership doesn’t immediately strike you with confidence. Time will tell, but does Rojo even have the strong physique, vision and leadership qualities needed for a centre back in the Premier League?

Throwing another reserve team player into the team is an option van Gaal isn’t afraid to do, but there’s more risk of it backfiring and isn’t the best position or league to ease an unproved defender into. Tyler Blackett did his job well in the first 4 games and 60 minutes this season, but ultimately had a day to forget at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Marnick Vermijl is United’s best option, but was exposed in United’s 4-0 shock defeat away at MK Dons. United need an experienced leader at the back and this move would be the opposite.

If experience is what is needed, then the most obvious choices to partner Chris Smalling this weekend are either Darren Fletcher or the returning Michael Carrick. Despite being midfielders, both would bring a calmness to the back 4 and help to steady the ship. They’ve played there before under Sir Alex Ferguson and until Phil Jones returns to the team or even until United can sign a defender in January, either Carrick or Fletcher may be required to help their side out at the back.

Of course van Gaal could revert back to a back 3, but whoever he chooses to line up with on Saturday, West Ham will go into the game full of confidence knowing exactly what United’s weakness is. The Hammers beat Liverpool 3-1 last weekend by taking the game to them, eliminating the influence of Steven Gerrard in the middle of the field and exposed Liverpool’s defence. Sam Allardyce will set out his team exactly the same.

The result on Saturday will depend on how van Gaal reacts to his defensive crisis and how his players respond. For United, the best option may be to simply outscore the opposition.

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5 Reasons I Hate the Ryder Cup

If you hadn’t noticed, and if actually haven’t let me know how so I can join your lifestyle, the Ryder Cup is almost upon us. Every 2 years Europe and America do battle over 18 holes to claim the most prestigious trophy in golf. All the talk about captain’s picks, wildcards and groupings are over. It’s now time for the golf to start and the players to make the headlines. Here’s 5 reasons I WON’T be watching.

RyderCup

#5 The excessive media coverage

It’ll be hard to believe that other sports and events are going on this weekend as all sporting news, coverage and headlines will be dedicated to the tournament. Expect the term ‘breaking news’ to be used in its loosest sense as the sports channels over analyse each and every shot.

#4 Golf is an individual sport

All year round golfers go into tournaments vying for their own individual success and suddenly are asked to be a part of a team. All of the golfers are professionals and embrace the team aspect, but why share your success and money when you don’t have to for the other 2 years in the sport?

#3 Europe v America is unfair

OK so the US is a pretty big country, but pitting it against 56 countries with their own golf institutes and authorities is quite unfair. There shouldn’t even be a contest when you compare the selection of players available for each captain. Europe should easily win each tournament and if they don’t it’s frankly embarrassing.

#2 The Captains

Apart from being the face of their team and the hero or scapegoat when the weekend is over, what is their purpose? They have their team effectively picked for them, and then stand around powerless as events unfold. What instructions can you give to golfers? “Make sure you hit that ball a long way”? “Incase you’d forgotten, you need to get the ball in the hole”? It’s hardly a game of tactics.

#1 Golf is boring

Ultimately, the reason the Ryder Cup never manages to attract and maintain new viewers to the sport is the fact that… well… basically… golf is boring. When you see Rory McIlroy being applauded, heralded and cheered like he’s saved a dog from a burning building when all he’s done is hit a ball a few yards, turn off and do something more exciting.

St Helens: Why Super League’s ‘Crisis’ Club Deserved the League Leaders’ Shield

The stage was set in Perpignan on Saturday evening for Castleford Tigers to produce the most historic win in the club’s history. The 200/1 outsiders to win the league at the start of the season have surprised everyone this year and were 80 minutes away from lifting the League Leaders’ Shield. All the Tigers had to do was win, but in what turned out to be a frustrating evening for Daryl Powell’s men there was no fairytale ending to their extraordinary campaign.

Instead the shield, which has been in and out of its case more times in recent weeks than a jack-in-the-box, was heading to Langtree Park as St Helens finished top after the 27 regular season rounds.

They may have only finished first by 1 point, but consistency across the whole season has led them to the Super League summit. Winning the Shield is particularly rewarding for Saints given all the adversity they have had to overcome this season, after a series of long term injuries to key players and the occasional shock defeat has often seen them labelled as the league’s ‘crisis’ club.

To be crowned Super League champions you need a strong end of season to help progress through the play-offs in a knock-out format, but to win the League Leaders’ Shield you have to be the best team consistently over the course of 8 months. That is St Helens’ reward.

A very impressive start to the campaign saw them maintain a 100% winning start 8 games into the season and were hailed as the early frontrunners and the team to beat. However, after a poor couple of previous seasons, pundits were waiting for Saints to slip up and it came on Good Friday, or ‘Bad Friday’ as St Helens fans labelled their 33-14 loss to Wigan. In fact, the Easter weekend turned into a disaster following a shock 40-26 away defeat to Widnes on Easter Monday, which was followed up by Saints being knocked out of the Challenge Cup the following week by Leeds.

The word ‘crisis’ was thrown around for the first time, but St Helens returned to winning ways even if it was against London and Bradford.

The Magic Weekend brought smiles to the faces of many rugby league fans but there was little to cheer about for Saints’ supporters after watching their side go down 41-24 to rivals Warrington. Veteran Paul Wellens was very critical of his team’s performance and attitude on that day, and his words appeared to evoke a response from his teammates who bounced back to maintain their lead at the top following wins against Huddersfield and Salford.

St Helens’ lowest point of the season came the following week away to Catalan. A humiliating 42-0 defeat once again saw pundits hail them as a club in ‘crisis’. But Saints remained top of the league and were keen to prove that the result would be an anomaly come the end of the campaign.

Sure there were further defeats to Hull FC and Hull KR but St Helens won the key battles against teams fighting with them for the top spot, and overcame the challenges that Castleford, Wigan and Leeds threw their way. The 13-12 win away at Leeds most notably would have pleased head coach Nathan Brown, after his side fought back in typical St Helens fashion from a 12-2 deficit to secure a vital 2 points.

The team won that game without 3 of their most influential players, Jonny Lomax, Jon Wilkin and Luke Walsh, all of whom have suffered season ending injuries for this campaign. Walsh in particular is a big loss and is a signing that Saints supporters will credit for their final league position this year.

St Helens’ long injury list this year has seen many youngsters being given an opportunity to impress in the first team and Nathan Brown will be pleased with the way his young side have responded to the challenges faced. It’s also been a season which has seen academy products such as Josh Jones, Mark Percival and Tommy Makinson cement their place in the side, with Makinson rewarded for his contributions this season by being named in the Super League Dream Team.

Needing just 1 point from their final 2 games to secure the League Leaders’ Shield, Saints appeared to have fallen at the final hurdle after defeats to Warrington and Huddersfield. Crisis? In the end other results went their way and St Helens finished the regular round season as league leaders.

The team will now be looking to bounce back once again like they’ve proved they have the ability to this season as the club chase Grand Final success for the first time since 2006.

If Saints had faded in recent seasons, there’s no doubting that 2014 is the year they fought back.

5-a-side: Choosing your Formation

Myself and a few friends have been in discussion recently about starting up a 5-a-side team. As being the natural choice of captain (leadership qualities, team player, the ability to take out a super injunction to prevent my teammates finding out the truth, etc), it got me thinking about what the best formation would be in a 5-a-side game. Sure, there’s only 4 outfield players to position, but an unorganised outfit could be the downfall of your team. Below are 5 formations you should consider for your team.

The Diamond

Diamond

The perfect balancing act which all 5-a-side teams require; an equal strength in both defence and attack. The defender is committed to defending and likewise the striker’s only aim is to put the ball in the back of the net. The role of the two midfielders is key, and is essential that they form a reliable partnership in the middle to help the team out at the back as well as going forward. The midfielders need to be fit, fast and agile in order to react quickly to changes in play.

The diamond is the most conventional formation and is difficult to see past it when starting up your team.

The Desmond

Desmond

The Desmond, aptly named as it involves a ‘2-2’ formation loses the out and out striker and replaces it with an additional defender. The tactic is essentially 2 defenders and 2 midfielders in defence, and a pyramid style 2-1-1 when the team has possession. 2 at the back provides more defensive cover, but is more difficult to create chances.

The Wall

Wall

For teams who like to park the bus, the ‘Wall’ sees a back 3 defending against the most resilient attacks. If you’re bottom of the league and facing the league leaders you may well choose the set up this way and hope to score goals on the counter. Your forward player may get frustrated, but not as frustrated as the opposition.

The Y

Y

The Y is named due to the shape but also because why would you set up your team this way? 2 strikers is fine in attack, but in defence your team will get a hiding. If you’re chasing a last minute goal then go for it, but starting in this system could be a big mistake if the 2 strikers don’t track back. Although, you could always just outscore them!

The Free Role

FlyMan

Similar to the conventional diamond, but one of the 2 midfielders is given a free role. One of the midfielders is assigned with the task of holding in the middle of the pitch whilst the other is free to roam across either wing to create chances. Slightly more unorganised, but your team has a solid spine to its formation with an additional sense of unpredictability for the opposition to defend against.

England: Why the Home-grown Players Rule is Doing Nothing to Help the National Team

Premier League clubs named their 25 man squads for the season last week in compliance with the ‘home-grown’ player ruling that was introduced to the Premier League at the start of the 2010/11 season. The rule, which states that clubs must name no more than 17 foreign players in their squads, was seen as a way of preventing the influx of players moving from abroad into the league, and instead to promote home-grown talent. It was seen as the answer to the England national team’s long suffering at major tournaments, and should help to bring through more English stars in a similar way to which Spain and Germany have now seen their young talents win glory on the world stage.

But now in its 5th year, how effective is the ruling? England’s 2-0 win over Switzerland on Monday night has helped to heal the cracks that had developed after England’s dismal World Cup and an unconvincing 1-0 win over Norway last week. Many questioned Roy Hodgson’s squad selection, but he can only choose what’s available to him.

Firstly, let’s take the positives. The rule does ensure that when it comes to transfer policy there is always one eye on the amount of foreign players a club can bring in. Jose Mourinho faced the dilemma this summer, knowing he had to offload a non-British player in order for his 25 man squad to qualify.

Chelsea incidentally have the fewest number of home-grown players over 21 in the league with 3- Gary Cahill, John Terry and Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas qualifies as home-grown having spent 3 years in England before his 21st birthday, as the ruling does not take in to consideration nationality. This does mean Chelsea have to promote young under 21 British players in to their squad, but have named only 2 English players from the 6. There’s an increasing trend amongst clubs to bring in academy players from overseas at a younger age which in turn results in them being classed as ‘home-grown’ when they turn 21 irrespective of their nationality.

Other big clubs in the league have been investing in English players however, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Danny Welbeck to name a few have made a move this summer to a top team, important for their development and the national squad. 18 of the 22 players picked by Roy Hodgson for the Norway and Switzerland games were from the top 7 clubs in the league and is a statistic Hodgson will be keen to replicate in future, as England’s success will depend on the number of players who are playing at the highest level.

Hodgson has stated he’d like to see more English players make a move abroad to join a big team in Europe should they not be playing regularly for their club. No-one from Hodgson’s latest squad does, and no-one who currently plays abroad is in serious contention to.

Despite Manchester United having offloaded several English players this summer, they still lead the way amongst the big clubs with 12 home-grown players, and that doesn’t include under 21 players such as Luke Shaw, Adnan Januzaj and Tyler Blackett. Local rivals Manchester City have 8, Liverpool 9, Arsenal 8 and Premier League newcomers Burnley are out in front with 19.

Whilst the statistics aren’t completely damning on the face of it, when it comes to helping out the England national team, the home-grown players rule does not go far enough.

As mentioned previously, the rule is irrespective of nationality. Wojciech Szczesny, Gael Clichy and Gylfi Sigurdsson are all part of the group of foreign players who class as home-grown having spent their teenage years in England. They are never going to play in an England shirt however, so why should they not count towards the 17 foreign players in a squad?

In addition, perhaps if we want to provide the national team with more English talent, only English players should be categorised as home-grown. It may be fair that clubs can have an unlimited amount of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players but it doesn’t provide any help when Roy Hodgson selects his England squads.

The same home-grown rule applies to Champions league squads, and despite Manchester City being penalised for breaching financial fair play rules, their reduced squad of 21 players only has to feature 5 home-grown players. Keeping that home-grown number at 8 would have sent out a clear message to clubs of the importance to invest in youth as opposed to overspending on foreign talent and would have been a more fitting punishment.

There have also been calls for a minimum of 3 home-grown players to start each game, although there’s a fear it would turn managers and investors away from the Premier League. There is an issue that only 1 home-grown player has to be named in an 18 man match day team though.

The introduction of the home-grown player rule was a good first step towards helping the national team. Now, 5 years on it needs to go further in order to provide England managers with a wider selection of players.

Have United’s Summer Signings Ruined their Identity?

“We aren’t afraid of moving in the market in a way we perhaps haven’t seen in recent years”.

Back in February those were the words from Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward, and he has most certainly stuck to his word. As the transfer window slammed shut on Monday night, few could question United had been the most successful. Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind all came in, but most notably the signings of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao will excite United fans the most.

In a summer where Manchester City had to worry about net profit and Chelsea stressed over quotas, United had the freedom to spend big. Whilst pundits and fans have shared their voices over United’s spending spree, there’s one man’s opinion that would intrigue me the most… Sir Alex Ferguson.

For years United fans could brag about two things over their rivals. They don’t sack managers and they don’t buy success. Within the space of 16 months that’s all changed. For years, success under Sir Alex was built on a foundation of developing youth players blended with a few experienced heads. Similar to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, it was more rewarding to see potential in a youngster and develop them in to a world class talent, as opposed to going out and buying an overpriced galactico.

That’s not to say Sir Alex never spent big on proven talent. The transfers of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and most recently Robin van Persie dictate otherwise. But he would never have spent £150m in a single transfer window.

Would he have spent £60m on a player in an ‘inflated market’? Would he have loaned a player for 12 months in a reported £20m deal? Would he have allowed a 23 year old England international who came through the Manchester United academy to leave? No. No wonder former player and coach Mike Phelan described United’s recent activity as ‘part of the club’s identity having been broken’.

However, Ferguson was a unique football manager in having the ability to take a good squad and make them great. He made players believe in their potential and could get the best out of them no matter what. It was a skill which David Moyes could not manage, and clearly having assessed the hand he was dealt with, Louis van Gaal decided he would not be able to either. Change was needed. Ferguson offered stability. Moyes offered evolution. Now van Gaal demands revolution.

Perhaps the word ‘revolution’ is an exaggeration; a more appropriate phrase would be ‘catching up’. In the summer of 2012 Eden Hazard was expected to make the move to Old Trafford but Ferguson deemed his price tag and wage demands too excessive. Instead, he went to Stamford Bridge and United opted for the £12m signing of Shinji Kagawa. In 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo’s inevitable move to Real Madrid went through as United lost their talisman. The £80m fee could have easily been spent on a big name signing. Instead, Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen came in. United have seen their rivals spend big in recent years and overtake them. Now, they’ve succumb to a similar approach.

What happens next will define whether or not their identity has gone. Was this summer’s transfer activity a one off or will January prove there’s more money for improvement?

United fans should not worry about Louis van Gaal’s views on developing youth talent, just look at his Ajax squad in the 90s. We’ve heard a lot about his philosophy and he is a proponent of developing young, upcoming stars to play a vital role in the long term. The Dutchman has started youngster Tyler Blackett in all 3 Premier League games so far this season and believes he is one for the future. Reece James is another van Gaal has spoken highly of. 18 year old James Wilson is now the 4th choice striker at Old Trafford, and broke all sorts of records whilst playing in various United youth teams last season. He scored twice on his debut against Hull towards the end of last season and should be given a few opportunities this campaign.

If United have momentarily lost their identity this summer, there’s no doubting that with time, developing young talent will bring back the traditional attitude to transfer policy. One thing’s for sure, the Louis van Gaal revolution is definitely underway.

What Does Manchester United’s Transfer Business mean for van Gaal’s Philosophy?

One of the biggest changes Manchester United has endured under Louis van Gaal’s tenure so far is the 3-5-2 formation which the Dutchman has set his team up to play. It’s a system which brought van Gaal success at the World Cup with the Netherlands, and is one which the United Manager insists he is forced to play due to the ‘unbalanced’ nature of his squad. The ‘unbalanced’ tag referring to the number of options up front compared to defensive frailties.

However, van Gaal has had time to assess his squad and has also been busy in the transfer market. Angel di Maria and the deadline day loan signing of Radamel Falcao from Monaco are world class additions to the squad, but many fans will point to the lack of defensive cover and may see the transfer window as an opportunity missed to make key additions at the back.

So how will United line up with their new signings? Will van Gaal stick with 3-5-2? Or will they revert back to a more familiar system?

3-5-2

It would appear the ‘philosophy’ that van Gaal is hoping to implement at Old Trafford is the 3-5-2 formation. Whilst the system worked effectively on United’s pre-season tour to the United States, the team has had less success in the start to their Premier League campaign, picking up just 2 points from their opening 3 games and still looking for their first win.

The system thus far has had its fair share of criticism, particularly with the 3 at the back who seem incapable of adapting to the formation. The use of wingbacks has also been ineffective, mainly due to the opposition using their wingers to mark them and therefore not causing any problems for the defence. It also means there’s no-one on the overlap as the role of the wingback incorporates both the full back and the winger.

United have also misfired up front so far, perhaps a problem they’re looking to new signing Radamel Falcao to rectify.

The system is key to playing Juan Mata in his favoured position and sees the Spaniard being integral to United’s play going forward. However, he’s yet to create the chances that the position allows for him to showcase, and with di Maria and Falcao to fit in to the side, he’ll be wondering what the signings mean for his first team opportunities.

4-4-2

4-4-2: More familiar but no place for Juan Mata

4-4-2: More familiar but no place for Juan Mata

4-4-2 is the traditional Manchester United set up and is one which many fans are keen to see a return to. Whilst the system is more familiar and is easier to identify what each player’s role is, it wouldn’t deal with the ‘unbalanced’ aspect of United’s side and leaves certain stars playing out of their position.

Juan Mata is forced to play out wide, a role which he has proved at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and during the 2nd half of last season at United does not suit him. He could play behind the main striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation, but then van Gaal is left with a difficult decision to choose between Rooney, van Persie and Falcao.

United's 2nd choice XI in a 4-4-2

United’s 2nd choice XI in a 4-4-2

It seems inconceivable incidentally that new club captain Wayne Rooney will be left out of the team, and Falcao’s arrival suggests he’ll offer van Persie competition for the 2nd strikers position.

Di Maria was used as a central midfielder in the goalless draw at Turf Moor on Saturday, but 4-4-2 would most likely see him play as a winger, particularly if Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera return to full fitness.

One thing 4-4-2 would ensure is a return to a familiar back 4, with Rafael and Luke Shaw being first choice full backs and United’s centre backs being placed in a more comfortable defensive set up.

4-3-3

4-3-3 could be the answer and on paper looks strong enough to compete at the top

4-3-3 could be the answer and on paper looks strong enough to compete at the top

Perhaps the system which United’s new signings indicate a change to is 4-3-3, similar to the way the majority of the big teams in Europe set up.

At a glance, the formation has numerous advantages in both defence and attack.

Defensively, the system adopts a return to the traditional 4 at the back, as well as 2 defensive midfielders. Juan Mata is also able to play in his favoured central position, although will be required to track back more often. One of United’s problems in the past with 4-3-3 is a lack of quality in central midfield to utilise the formation, but with the additions of Daley Blind and Ander Herrera, as well as the option to play di Maria there, playing 3 in the middle now looks a lot more reassuring than before the transfer window opened.

United's 2nd choice XI in a 4-3-3 looks strong also

United’s 2nd choice XI in a 4-3-3 looks strong also

In a 4-3-3 di Maria may be preferred in the forward 3, playing off Falcao or van Persie as well as having some duties out wide. Rooney can also play off the main striker under the system, although can fit in any one of 4 positions you feel.

United’s 2nd choice XI certainly appears a lot stronger with the 4-3-3 formation, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the new look Manchester United line up with the system against QPR a week on Sunday.